Too popular for its own good

Restaurant: At the end of a long wait, the reward is good food at An Poitin Stil.

Sunday Gourmet

November 07, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Any restaurant named An Poitin Stil has a strike against it before it even opens. What happens when you call Information for the phone number and try to pronounce the name? What about when you want to ask your friends to meet you there?

No problem. People in the Timonium and Cockeysville area -- and from as far away as Zimbabwe, to judge from the crowds -- are simply calling it "the Irish pub." That doesn't help you with the phone company, but Timonium's newest hot spot doesn't take reservations anyway.

Which brings us to a rainy weeknight recently when we got to An Poitin Stil at 6:45, put our name on the list and were told the wait for a table was an hour and a half. I was astounded. An Poitin Stil is nice, it's really nice, but it's not that nice. We're talking Irish pub food here, folks.

Inside and out it's cute the way Main Street in Disney World is cute. The owners, including two oral surgeons, spent more than a million dollars to create little spaces that are quaint and in some ways quite authentic. The bar and the furniture, for instance, were imported from Ireland. My favorite area was a cozy lounge off the bar with a crackling fire -- but then I spent a lot of time there.

The problem is that when you pack people in till they can't move, and all those people are drinking and smoking (some smoking cigars) and talking louder and louder -- well, you lose some of that quaintness. Waiting for a table for an hour and a half at An Poitin Stil is like waiting in the middle of the loudest frat party you ever went to. At that point you can't really appreciate the authentic atmosphere. You can't even see it.

And how do you judge the service when the staff is really nice but stretched to the limit? When the waitress can't get through the crowd to take your drink order?

And how do you judge the kitchen when everyone who has to wait an hour and a half for a table has ordered appetizers in the bar, or sometimes whole meals? The kitchen staff, hired to feed 15 tables (yes, the dining areas are small), is cooking for probably triple that number.

Even so, the staff does remarkably well. You'll find a good- natured crowd and surprisingly unflustered waiters and waitresses. Other customers scootched over to make room for us in the lounge, and we had drinks and appetizers there. (Our new friends ended up eating their whole meal while they waited. They had gotten to the Irish coffee stage by the time their table was ready.)

An Poitin Stil has Guinness, Harp and Murphy's on draft -- produced by a system that replicates the taste of draft beer in Ireland -- as well as any number of other draft and bottled beers. The selection of wines by the glass is also surprisingly good for a place where the focus isn't on wines.

In the same split personality sort of way, the menu has "Irish Nachos" for an appetizer and also an elegant smoked salmon plate. But my favorite starter was the "Dublin Beef Sticks," a truly outrageous concept. The kitchen takes thick strips of prime rib, with plenty of crispy fat on the ends, covers them with a batter flavored with stout, and deep fries them until they have a thin, hot, crisp, gold crust. You dip these dainty morsels in a creamy sauce sparked with horseradish and could die happy.

Those Irish nachos are good, too, although why "nachos" I'm not sure. Instead, these are the Irish version of potato skins, potato included. The plate of sliced potatoes and crisp curls of potato skins had melted Cheddar and a bit of bacon, but not too much. Sour cream came on the side for dipping.

The smoked salmon plate showed the kitchen was capable of some sophistication. The thin slices were prettily garnished with capers, shallots and chopped egg with mesclun and a bit of aioli. But since we had a hard time getting forks, it wasn't the best choice we could have made.

When we finally got our table in the faux ancient castle banquet hall, we had studied the menu endlessly and were ready to order main courses as soon as we sat down.

I feel sorry for executive chef Christopher Ellis, whose resume includes work in the kitchens of Linwood's and the Polo Grill. He probably doesn't get to strut his stuff because after such a long wait most customers are probably too far gone to notice how their food is. The menu has Irish pub fare (corned beef and cabbage and shepherd's pie), but the house specialties are dishes like potato-crusted grouper and lamb steak with crab meat.

The grouper is spectacular. The delicate white fish was covered with crisp gold wires of potato, complemented by a perfectly balanced white wine sauce, fresh tomatoes and capers. The lamb steak had plenty of meaty flavor but was a bit tough; a discreet topping of lump crab meat, tomatoes, mushroom and a demi-glace fragrant with tarragon did much to make us forget that.

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